Wouldn’t it be wonderful if mourning the loss of a loved one came with a rule book — what to do, what not to do and how long to do it? Unfortunately, like almost anything in life of any importance, grief does not come with an instruction manual. I have come to learn that the one unrivaled rule of grief is — there are no rules!
I must admit, from my experience, since losing my father and my young husband in the same year and all the subsequent losses my heart has endured, our understanding of grief as a culture has come a long way.
Since the time of my parents’ generation, when grief was not shared and each mourner was left to his own devices, experts in the field have developed guidelines and stages by which the bereaved can navigate.
The experts will tell you that in general it is best to wait one to two years following a loss to make any major decisions such as selling a home, leaving a career or remarriage. Stages including shock, anger, sorrow, depression and others are the hallmark of those who have blazed the trail for us. Now we see that grief is multidimensional and in no way as orderly or predictable as a stage. Those in mourning will move in and out of any emotion as their need takes them.
Current guidelines I have found helpful include paying close attention to your body, mind and heart’s response to the loss, expressing your feelings in constructive ways, and being gentle with yourself.
Many bereaved speak gratefully of the overwhelming support they receive from family and friends. But there are just as many who are challenged with well-wishers who will tell them in no uncertain terms how, when and where to grieve — offering sage advice, often unsolicited.
Following the death of my husband, I, like many who are newly bereaved, found myself bombarded with uninvited advice on very personal decisions ranging from whether to move and when to what to feed my preschool-age daughters. The well-intended guidance only proved to confuse me more during a time when my only hope was living to the next moment.
As I began to educate myself on how a young widow should grieve, by reading, attending seminars and searching for a support group that fit my unique needs, I was inspired by a statement that changed the course of my grief and has fueled my bereavement ministry as well. Alan Wolfelt, founder of Center for Loss and Life Transition in Colorado, said that each of us is the expert of our own grief journey.
Think about that for a moment. Within that single statement there lies an innate truth that our culture has lost sight of. We each have within us the knowledge of what we need to mourn in healthy ways — our personal rules of mourning. And the journey is comprised of identifying those needs and discovering ways to meet them.
My heart demanded that I slow to a snail’s pace in the aftermath of my husband’s death. Eventually I was able to create a new normal and regain my energy and passion for life. But my heart always knew just what I needed all along the way, even when I didn’t.
It’s important to surround yourself with others who wish to support you. They listen when you need to talk and allow you to express your unique and personal pain. However, it is equally and perhaps even more important to listen to your heart and discover your own personal response to the pain and joy of grief.
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